The Phoenix Suns have knocked off the defending champions as Chris Paul and company have bested the Los Angeles Lakers in their best-of-seven series following their 113-100 victory in Game 6 on Friday night.
In the end, the Lakers had no answer for the loss of Anthony Davis as Los Angeles found themselves facing an insurmountable lead after the All-Star big man was forced to leave the floor in the opening six minutes. While Los Angeles was faced with their own injury issues, the Suns took advantage of the situation as Devin Booker led all scorers with 47 points to ensure Phoenix would take care of their opponent in the opening round of the Western Conference playoffs. This marked the first time that a team led by LeBron James had been eliminated in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
With the win, the Suns advance to face the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals. Denver advanced out of their first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers with a win on Friday night. Here are the three biggest takeaways from Phoenix's win.
1. Did the bubble burst?
We're one round into the 2021 postseason and both the defending champion Lakers and the defending Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat are out of the playoffs. The Eastern Conference runner-up Boston Celtics got knocked out in the first round as well.
The Celtics were missing Jaylen Brown. The Lakers obviously were dealing with several injuries of their own, including the one that largely kept Anthony Davis out of the last three games. Denver, the only conference finalist from last season remaining in the field, is missing Jamal Murray, P.J. Dozier and Will Barton. We have more teams left in the field now that missed the playoffs last season, the Suns and the Hawks, than that made the conference finals last season.
It's overly simplistic to suggest that the bubble was the sole culprit for the parity we've seen this season. Boston and Miami struggled when healthy. Denver has thrived in spite of its health issues. The Lakers had deeper roster problems that would've been exposed eventually, whether James and Davis got hurt or not. But when we look back on this season, it will be hard not to wonder what might have been had teams played under more typical circumstances. Davis never looked right all year. Boston and Miami didn't either. But the Clippers and Bucks would argue that the bubble disrupted them as much as the shortened offseason did the Lakers and Heat this year. There's no fair way to quantify the disruption COVID-19 inflicted upon the basketball world. These haven't been normal seasons. Teams have had to make the best of them. Some have done so. Others have not. There's nothing more to it.
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2. Kobe's disciple
Devin Booker has been compared to Kobe Bryant for pretty much his entire career. Like many of today's young stars, Bryant mentored Booker. Their playing styles are eerily similar and grew more so this season. Booker took the most mid-range shots of his career this season. More important by Bryant's reckoning would be the fact that Booker made the playoffs for the first time in his career.
He happened to do so against Bryant's former team, and on Thursday, he delivered a performance that would have made his idol proud. Booker scored 47 points, including 22 in the first quarter alone, but the variety of shots and moves that led to them were what truly stood out. Booker made 8-of-10 3-point attempts. He killed the Lakers in the mid-range. Every time they started sneaking up on the Suns, Booker nailed a dagger to remind us how big the margin in this game really was.
It was a superstar performance, through and through, the sort of postseason gem that Booker hadn't had the chance to give considering the poor rosters built around him for most of his career. Now he has the teammates to deliver moments like this on the biggest stage. It was a game Bryant would have been proud of.
3. Risk vs. reward
Anthony Davis played five minutes in this game. They weren't five minutes of typical Anthony Davis basketball. The superstar big man struggled to move laterally. He had none of his signature explosiveness and was extremely passive on offense in his brief stint on the floor. When he left the game grimacing in pain, it didn't seem as though he'd aggravated the injury. It seemed more like he couldn't overcome the pain that he was already dealing with.
This was a first-round game. The Lakers needed to win two just to escape elimination, and then 12 more after that to repeat as champions. If that is how Davis looked five minutes in, how would he have handled a full game's workload? How could the Lakers have expected him to survive an entire playoff run? Davis signed a five-year contract last offseason. He is the future of this franchise. The Lakers took an unnecessary risk just by putting him on the floor, and it was almost a relief to see him leave the game before that risk turned into a more serious injury.